Recap of Making Smart Choices: Which Freelance Projects Are Right for You?

by Alicja Minda

Stock image of open laptop with phone, notebook, and pen

The first Editors Toronto program meeting of this year, which took place on January 28, 2020, was especially relevant to freelance editors. Guest speaker Michelle Waitzman, a non-fiction writer and editor with experience in TV production and corporate communications, talked about ways to evaluate new opportunities to move your career in your desired direction. Based on the standing-room-only session at the 2019 Editors Canada conference in Halifax (co-presented with Jess Shulman), her engaging presentation “Making Smart Choices: Which freelance projects are right for you?” quickly evolved into a lively discussion with active participation from the room.

Michelle tackled a dilemma familiar to many editors, namely, how to decide which job is worth taking, and which will only cause stress, financial difficulties, or make you miss out on a better opportunity. In her view, even budding editors should avoid the temptation of taking whatever comes along, as there are many things that can make a job worse than no job at all.

To make the decision-making less painful and time-consuming, Michelle presented a four-step process whereby you evaluate the offer based on your personalized checklists of (1) deal-breaking terms, (2) criteria the project must have, (3) things you’d rather not deal with, and (4) things that are nice to have. The important thing to remember is that these checklists should be revisited from time to time, as you evolve as an editor. Factors to weigh include compensation, time constraints, interest in the topic, client demands, skills required, and prospects of networking and future business (although sometimes it all just boils down to a gut feeling).

While Michelle suggested sample criteria for each step of the process, she strongly encouraged everyone to create their own checklists; after all, everyone has different skillsets, schedules, and preferences. One editor’s horror job can be another editor’s dream job. The resulting brainstorming session with the attendees yielded a wealth of noteworthy points to consider.

Potential deal-breakers include having to work on hard copy or from audio recordings, dealing with traumatic content, working at the client’s office, attending meetings, or being available at odd hours. Also, one may feel discomfort working in certain sectors or for a client with specific business practices. Editors in the room quickly added others to the list: bad or slow pay (or payment in “exposure”), an area beyond one’s expertise, teamwork with strangers, questionable content, unrealistic deadlines, unreliable clients, and lack of clarity on the client’s expectations.

Equally important are the must-haves: the criteria that must be present for an editor to accept the job. Examples on Michelle’s list included a deposit or advance pay when working with independent authors, a written contract, a preferred genre or type of work, and a complete manuscript. Others suggested an informed client who understands the editing process, an appropriate budget for the project, a reasonable schedule, copyright ownership of the work, proper credit or the right to withhold it, and even good chemistry with the client.

Having determined that a potential job doesn’t raise any red flags, you can move on to the nuances. A project that meets all your must-have criteria may still have too many rather-nots. These could be anything from an inconvenient format or a text by a writer whose first language is not English to a tight deadline. You may not wish to share your fee with an intermediary party or service (for example, Upwork, Reedsy, or Scribendi) or work on too demanding or unappealing projects. Many participants also agreed they would rather not work for family and friends, just as they would rather avoid complete strangers. Some would avoid costly errors and omissions insurance requirements and obscure contract clauses; others would rather not work for clients who do not pay through e-transfer or PayPal. Then there are such nuisances as know-it-all clients or a multi-stage review process.

Despite the challenges, you may still decide that a job has enough appeal if it ticks other boxes. Those nice-to-have elements could be a style guide you already know, an interesting topic, prospects of repeat business, an opportunity to do a particular type of work or to hone particular skills—not to mention better or quicker pay. Contributions from the room included working for a big-name client, landing a project that fits well into your schedule, earning testimonials and referrals, and other perks.

Also, as Michelle noted, not everything is set in stone, so it sometimes pays to try and negotiate your way out of a deal-breaker to land an otherwise perfectly desirable job. Just by asking, some rather-nots can be made to go away, or some nice-to-haves can be included.

There are also ways to turn down a job you clearly don’t want without burning bridges, so that you can get the next one. You can say, “I can’t schedule it right now,” or “I don’t do this type of edit, but feel free to contact me if something else comes up.” The bottom line is to let them know what would work for you in the future. If you want to close the door for good, say it’s not your area of expertise or that you won’t do it for the pay they are offering. One participant said that when dealing with clients who won’t stop bargaining, she always includes a calculation of what they are offering versus what she charges.

The presentation concluded with a question-and-answer session, which launched a discussion on how new editors can assess their skills and decide whether a given job is right for them. One way is to ask for a sample of the text to be edited, but it may sometimes be worth taking on a challenge and getting a chance to learn on the job. As for attracting clients, one participant suggested showcasing work samples on LinkedIn (with the client’s approval). Other testimonies pointed to the benefits of Editors Canada membership: a listing in the Online Directory of Editors shows up in an online search and grants credibility, while getting involved with a local Editors Canada branch helps prove soft skills and gain visibility and peer recognition.

The January program was definitely inspiring in terms of career development. Michelle Waitzman presented a simple yet ingenious tool to guide freelance editors in deciding which projects to accept and which to avoid. The session ended with participants winning door prizes and socializing.


Alicja Minda is a freelance journalist, editor, and research analyst, and student affiliate of Editors Canada.

This article was copy edited by Natalia Iwanek.

2 thoughts on “Recap of Making Smart Choices: Which Freelance Projects Are Right for You?

  1. Excellent recap of a superb presentation.

    Great job, Michelle: you helped me take a more systematic approach to something I’ve been doing “off the cuff” in evaluating projects for decades.

    Nifty note-taking and writing-up, Alicja. I’ve forwarded your article to a friend who couldn’t attend that evening, and told her it’s almost as good as having been there. I especially like how you caught the crowd’s contributions along with the presenter’s points. Whenever I present workshops, I always acknowledge early on that I’m not the only expert in the room. I learn as much as I teach.

    Finally, being a copy editor myself, I offer kudos to Natalia Iwanek–as well as whoever had the brilliant idea to credit the copy editor for this blog.

    Brava all around.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the kind word, Riça. Michelle’s presentation was so clear and engaging, and the whole meeting so fun, that it was a pleasure to work on this recap. Hope your friend (and anyone else who couldn’t make it) will find it useful.


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